WASHINGTON — Following repeated last-minute requests from the Department of Veterans Affairs for billions of dollars to keep a private care access program running, lawmakers have introduced legislation to crack down on how the agency comes calling for more money.
Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont.; John McCain, R-Ariz.; Tim Kaine, D-Va.; and Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., introduced legislation that would require the VA to make additional funding requests outside the regular budget process 45 days before a veteran could lose health care or benefits, according to a press release late last week.
The bipartisan legislation would also require VA officials to provide a spending plan and justification for the funding requests and would trigger a “third party review of the VA’s financial processes, including how the VA tracks its budget and spending,” according to the release.
The legislation comes after numerous lawmakers expressed frustration about how the VA has projected its spending for the program. Lawmakers had to plunge an additional $2.1 billion into what’s known as the Veterans Choice Program in August to avoid a drop-off in veteran care. The program was created in 2014 as a temporary access route for veterans pending a broader overhaul of the VA’s myriad private care programs. Lawmakers are currently in negotiations on broader VA private care overhaul legislation.
“We can’t keep allocating money to the VA without more accountability over their budget and spending practices. This bill will give us more confidence in the VA’s ability to budget in a way that ensures veterans are getting the very best care,” said Tester, the top Democrat on the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee.
Notably, the panel’s chairman, Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., did not sign on to the legislation, which may reflect a desire to prevent additional administrative burdens as the agency works with his committee on an overhaul of private care access programs.
His spokeswoman didn’t address Isakson’s decision not to sign onto the legislation and told CQ that he’s “supportive of any effort that would help improve VA’s ability to ensure taxpayer dollars are used effectively.”
McCain, himself a veteran, warned that poorly managed finances were jeopardizing congressional efforts to overhaul the private access program.
“Unless and until the VA gets a grasp on its finances and demand outlook, our effort in Congress to develop a plan for consolidating veterans health care in the community will continue to face difficulty,” McCain said in the joint release.
Kaine noted that the concern that the VA could face a funding shortfall by the end of 2017 for the program came despite VA telling lawmakers the $2.1 billion extension would last six months when the legislation was up for a vote in August.
The lawmakers said the VA has requested a total of $3.2 billion in emergency funding for the Choice Program twice this year, in March and July.
VA Secretary David Shulkin downplayed concerns the Choice fund would run dry before the end of the year in an interview Sept. 27. But he acknowledged that if Congress didn’t pass a broad overhaul of private care programs by year’s end, the program could hit another shortfall.
“I’ve always said that it is essential that we get the Choice legislation done this legislative session and that’s what were aiming for — before Thanksgiving — to get legislation done. Were going to be working closely with Congress to do that,” Shulkin said.
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